If you don’t consider the colorful drive from Los Angeles to the Southern Mojave Desert (roadside dinosaurs, fifty-nine-cent “dig-your-own-cactus” outposts, and banners for “Grubstaker Days”) a cultural affair, then you may not fully appreciate the unconventional aesthetics of the High Desert Test Sites weekend. Despite raging gas prices and ninety-degree temps, visitors road-tripped to the annual celebration organized and presented by artists Andrea Zittel and Lisa Anne Auerbach, dealers Shaun Caley-Regen and John Connelly, collector Andy Stillpass, and local liaison Veronica Fernandez. Saturday’s first stop was the HDTS HQ in downtown Joshua Tree, where maps were distributed, sisters Amy and Wendy Yao set up their “Art Swap Meet,” and Aaron Gach’s mobile activist project, the Tactical Ice Cream Unit, was offering both political propaganda and frozen treats. (I chose a mango popsicle and the “Media” flyer.) Overwhelmed by the brimming schedule of events, I looked to artist Jeremy Deller’s HDTS 5 bumper sticker and asked myself “What Would Neil Young Do?” Like a cowgirl in the sand, I hit Highway 62 heading towards Test Site 4, the infamous A-Z West, which featured new work by Chris Badger, Faith Coloccia, Mark Klassen, as well as Carolyn Castaño’s Meditation Chamber for Peace and Revolutionary Thought, a recently customized Zittel Wagon Station. But the abundant sand disturbed the peace for several motorists and I spotted Zittel (looking pristine in a Fiber Form top of her own design) and partner David Dodge rescuing an unprepared RV from the delicate terrain. Though a concerned Dodge grumbled, “some yahoos drove off-road and I just pushed them out,” he made light of the incident the next day at his (new-agey) Test Site, Laughter Yoga at the Integratron, by inventing a yogic breathing exercise based on spinning tires.
I traveled on to the farthest sites of the event; a group show including Jack Pierson, Kelly Martin, and Ryan McGinley; an evening performance by Flora Wiegmann; and Katie Grinnan’s Inverse Parade. At Grinnan’s Test Site 7, ACME’s Bob Gunderman offered some (unsolicited) practical advice for weekend campers: “Dig eight inches down and away from nearby water sources.” Duly noted. I approached the parade—a series of static, stand-up forms animated by a van driving viewers forward and back along the sculptural scape—where I spotted Grinnan stationed in the van with video camera. Slightly delirious but still grinning, the artist tried to describe the work’s departure for Socrates but confessed, “I’m sorry. I’ve been out here for four days.”
Auerbach was on hand to talk about this year’s sites. “Andrea didn’t want this to turn into a curated event,” she explained, “but we had to screen submissions due to all the artists wanting to participate. We also tried to make it more event-based rather than object-based this year.” I caught up with Zittel, who attested, “I wanted the events to bring attention to the pre-existing art sites here. What’s the point of abandoning more art objects in the desert? You might as well put up a stucco house.” Auerbach reported running out of 500 maps by Saturday afternoon, many of the takers art-world visitors from New York and LA, as well as the expected Burning Man types. “The two art worlds mesh really well and the vibe was great last night, though I did see some people who couldn’t handle the heat,” Zittel added, referring to a packed dinner at the Palms restaurant where the performative works of Marie Lorenz, Jay Lizo, and New York-based Donnie & Travis (slated to show at John Connelly Presents this June) were on view.
At dusk, bats began to feed, coyotes called in the distance, and, at the West valley’s “Gamma Gulch,” musicians performed Gregory Lenczycki’s minimal score. An intimate crowd gathered around “The Grotto” (designed by Kathleen Johnson and Taalman Koch Architecture) to listen to both traditional instruments and a series of sounding wires strung between boulders. Though part two of Lenczycki’s concert was scheduled for dawn, I resolved to sleep in, giving my feet (and my tires!) a rest.
The activities resumed the next morning with additional, Sunday-only happenings: A walking tour lead by an eighty-nine-year old local named Justus Motterwho collaborated with artist Jacob Stein to present several sculptures on his propertyand Dodge’s wildly popular yoga sessions. There, I heard one amused participant comment, “He’s not an artist, but that’s definitely art.” Artist Drew Dominick’s luncheon drew me to Coyote Dry Lake, where unsuspecting visitors (dining on smoked turkey and cornbread) gathered around the Plexiglas wall of a makeshift shelter. Inside, the heavily camouflaged Dominick, cloistered among more camo foliage, used a compound hunting bow to drive arrows into a target on the transparent wall, catching the carnivorous lunchers (and a few dirt bikers) off-guard. But it was Sunday evening that caught me off-guard, when I realized that, despite logging several hundred miles in the desert, there was plenty of artwork that I still had not seen. After an unscheduled pit stop at Pioneertown’s “Pappy hour,” where artists and organizers were unwinding over pitchers of beer, I reluctantly (and soberly) returned to my car to fight traffic and gas prices back to the city.